The Kennedy Legacy

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60 tape reveals an uncertain JFK: Before victory, misgivings over abilities, future

WASHINGTON — It’s a rare glimpse of the introspective John F. Kennedy — unsure of his political skills; worried about what he might do if he lost the race; and surprisingly honest about his poor health and his attempts to deceive the press over it.

Three days after he declared his candidacy for the presidency, the man who would leave a near-mythical imprint on America’s political identity seemed decidedly unsure of his own.

That revelation comes from a recently unearthed audio recording made during a private dinner party that the Massachusetts senator and his wife, Jacqueline, hosted in their Georgetown home on Jan. 5, 1960. The tape was given to the JFK Library and Museum in Dorchester last year and was recently discovered by a Brown University historian.

At the dinner party, the recording reveals, Kennedy said he never dreamed of the presidency when he entered politics as a scrawny candidate for Congress in 1946.

“Never. Never. Never,” the future president insisted. “I thought maybe I’d be governor of Massachusetts one day.”

What was irresistible about the decision to seek the presidency, the Harvard alumnus explained to his three guests, was the excitement and challenge of the race itself — “like playing Yale every Saturday, in a sense” — and his unabashed desire to be at the center of the nation’s momentous decisions.

The guests were Newsweek correspondent James M. Cannon and Washington bureau chief Benjamin Bradlee, who later ran the Washington Post, and his wife, Antionette. Bradlee and Cannon were longtime friends of Kennedy and did not report on the conversation.

Cannon’s family gave the tape to the library, and the content will be featured in next month’s Smithsonian magazine. Bradlee did not return calls Tuesday seeking comment.

Ted Widmer, the Brown University historian, said Tuesday that when he came across the tape in his research, “I was just knocked out by it.”

“I thought it was very visceral and immediate, and quite personal. JFK was one of the most successful politicians of the 20th century but he is candid about his liabilities and his inhibitions,” he said. Widmer also said Kennedy’s explanations for why he was seeking the presidency seem strikingly honest.

At one point in the conversation, for example, Kennedy makes another football analogy.

“Johnny Unitas, he might find it interesting to play in a sandlot team, in front of four people, but he’s playing for the Colts, the best team in the United States, for the world championship,” he said. “I’m not comparing the presidency with that, but I’m just saying that, how could it be more fascinating than to run for president under the obstacles and the hurdles that are before me.”

Kennedy “is interested in being at the center of the machinery of government, the center of the action,” said Widmer, rather than seeking the presidency for the lofty goals he outlined in his campaign to secure the Democratic nomination and ultimately defeat Vice President Richard M. Nixon.

The recording portrays a JFK not so sure of himself as he set out on his historic quest, hoping that the electorate sought a new kind of leader who was not necessarily the back-slapping campaigner like his grandfather, the former congressman and Boston mayor John Fitzgerald.

“I think I personally am the antithesis of a politician as I saw my grandfather who was the politician,” Kennedy said. “What he loved to do was what politicians are expected to do. Now I just think that today… . I’d rather read a book on a plane than talk to the fellow next to me, and my grandfather wanted to talk to everybody else. I’d rather go out to dinner.”

He later added: “I had not regarded myself as a political type. My father didn’t, he thought I was hopeless.”

But politics attracted him in part, he said, because the alternatives for someone of his social and academic station were so unappealing.

“If [I] went to law school, and I’d gotten out, which I was going to do [unclear] and then I go and become a member of a big firm, and I’m dealing with some dead, deceased man’s estate, or I’m perhaps fighting in a divorce case … or some fellow got in an accident … or let’s say more serious work, when you’re participating in a case against the DuPont company in a general antitrust case, which takes two or three years, can you tell me that that compares in interest with being a member of Congress in trying to write a labor bill, or trying to make a speech on foreign policy?’’ Kennedy said. “I just think that there’s no comparison.”

Throughout the discussion, Kennedy’s famous flowing public voice is instead choppy and often inarticulate. Also, he sounds uncharacteristically vulnerable.

For example, the possibility of losing the election weighed heavily on him.

“I wouldn’t like to try to pick up my life at 45, -6, or -7, and start after 20 years of being in politics, and try to pick up my life then,’’ he said, adding, “Maybe need a different degree. I mean, it’s like having your leg up to your ankle or to your knee amputated, it’s still disturbing.”

Antionette Bradlee asked Kennedy, who had already written two books, if he might pursue a career in writing if politics didn’t work out.

“No, I couldn’t, because I’ve lost the chance. I mean, I’m sure it takes 20 years to learn to be a decent writer,” he responded. “You have to do it every day.”

When a recently published photo of him as a young man looking sickly came up in the discussion, Kennedy spoke of his personal medical problems, which became known publicly years after his 1963 assassination. Such problems would probably have been disqualifying if known to voters.

“There’s a picture that the Boston Globe ran Sunday, which had the veterans rally [in 1948] … Franklin Roosevelt [Jr.] and I, and I looked like a cadaver,” Kennedy recalled, noting his unusual pallor.

When asked about what was wrong with him, he responded, “Addison’s disease, they said I have.”

He then noted that a reporter “asked me today if I have it.” He denied it to the reporter, saying he was just sun-tanned. “I said no, God, a guy with Addison’s disease looks sort of brown and everything,” Kennedy told his guests, who burst out in laughter. “Christ! See, that’s the sun.”

But natural politician or not, Kennedy said he thought the ingredients to win were not all that complicated.

“You have to be able to communicate a sense of conviction and intelligence and rather, some integrity,” he said.


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Kennedy, Before Choosing the Moon: ‘I’m Not That Interested in Space’

The language was, almost literally, soaring. “We set sail on this new sea,” President Kennedy told the country, “because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people.” We choose exploration, he declared, for ourselves and for all nations. “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

And, of course, we found what we sought. We came in peace for all mankind, and we set foot on the moon. In light of our success, that step took on a sheen not only of epicness — Homer, into the heavens’ wine-dark sea — but also of inevitability. A man on the moon, its image plunged into the public imagination 50 years ago, came to symbolize striving and dreaming and insisting with a power that still captivates us today.

So it’s easy to forget how ambivalent Kennedy was, initially, about the space program. It’s easy to forget how ambivalent he was, initially, about space itself. As the president put it, bluntly, in a 1962 meeting with advisors and NASA administrators: “I’m not that interested in space.”

And that was, it seems, a longstanding apathy. When Kennedy was a Massachusetts senator in the late 1950s, Richard Collin writes in John F. Kennedy: History, Memory, Legacy, he and Robert Kennedy agreed to meet the MIT professor and aerospace pioneer Charles Draper at a Boston restaurant. During the dinner, Draper later recalled, the brothers essentially ridiculed his pitch for space exploration — not cruelly, but with the kind of patient disbelief usually reserved for those who hold hopeless dreams. The politicians, Collin reports, “could not be convinced that all rockets were not a waste of money and space navigation even worse.”

That attitude would continue into the Kennedy presidency. Hugh Sidey, Life magazine’s White House correspondent, emphasized space exploration as Kennedy’s weakest area during his first few months in office. The new president understood less about that field, Collin notes, than about any other issue he’d been confronted with when assuming office. And Jerome Wiesner, Kennedy’s own science adviser, confirmed that view: When it came to space, Wiesner said of his boss, “he hadn’t thought much about it.”

If Kennedy wasn’t inspired by space itself, though, he was inspired by political victories. In April of 1961, just months after the president’s inauguration, the cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to venture into space. Less than a week after Gagarin’s orbit came the Bay of Pigs. Kennedy, in need of a political victory both for his administration and against the Soviets, turned to his vice president — who, unlike Kennedy himself, had been a longtime space advocate. (“Control of space,” Johnson had put it in 1958, “is control of the world.”) Johnson, at the time, was serving as chairman of a newly reorganized Space Council. Kennedy asked him for recommendations on how to accelerate the U.S. space program — not in the name of heavenly exploration, but in the name of a slightly more earthly goal:

Do we have a chance of beating the Soviets by putting a laboratory in space, or by a trip around the Moon, or by a rocket to land on the Moon, or by a rocket to go to the Moon and back with a man? Is there any other space program which promises dramatic results in which we could win?

The president asked for a response “at the earliest possible moment.” A week later, Johnson — basing his assessment in part on a Defense Department suggestion that “dramatic achievements in space … symbolize the technological power and organizing capability of a nation” — responded with a five-and-a-half-page memo. It emphasized, among Kennedy’s list of potentially Soviet-shaming projects, the manned trip to the moon:

… As for a manned trip around the Moon or a safe landing and return by a man to the Moon, neither the United States nor the U.S.S.R. has such a capability at this time, so far as we know. The Russians have had more experience with large boosters and with flights of dogs and man. Hence they might be conceded a time advantage in circumnavigation of the Moon and also in a manned trip to the Moon. However, with a strong effort the United States could conceivably be first in these accomplishments by 1966 or 1967 …

The moon, it’s worth noting, was selected with geopolitical as well as technological strategy in mind. And it was selected not by Kennedy himself, but by his space agency. In 1959, NASA administrators were tasked with choosing a space exploration goal that would best utilize American potential in space — and the agency determined that a manned lunar landing would make the most fitting and practical successor to Alan Shepard’s planned orbit of Earth. The Apollo program, true to Kennedy’s rhetoric, was finally implemented not as a proactive measure against the Soviets, but as a reactive one. “Kennedy was interested in space as a symbol of political power,” the historian Dwayne Day writes, “but it was only after the Soviet Union increased the political stakes that Kennedy approved the lunar landing program.”

And it was through a process of negotiation that the program’s timetable was determined. Responding to pushback from NASA, Kennedy would publicly amend Johnson’s aspirational lunar timetable — from five or six years, starting in 1961, to ten. The president had crafted a goal that would serve his political if not personal interest: to go to the moon. And to go “in this decade.” Not because it was easy, but because it was expedient. “The Soviet Union has made this a test of the system,” Kennedy would later tell a group of advisors and NASA administrators. “So that’s why we’re doing it.”

On May 5, 1962, Shepard repeated Gagarin’s accomplishment, becoming the first American in space. On May 25, Kennedy gave a speech to Congress asking the country to commit itself “to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” Already, Kennedy’s ideological argument was taking the soaring tinge so familiar in his subsequent discussions of space. “If we are to win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny,” he argued,

the dramatic achievements in space which occurred in recent weeks should have made clear to us all, as did the Sputnik in 1957, the impact of this adventure on the minds of men everywhere, who are attempting to make a determination of which road they should take …. Now it is time to take longer strides — time for a great new American enterprise — time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the key to our future on earth.

From expediency to enterprise. From steps to strides. From earth’s muddy present to its gleaming future. That might complicate the story of aspiration and exploration that we’ve come to associate with Kennedy and with Earth’s earliest forays into space. It might emphasize the way the dullest features of humanity — competition, vindication, pride — helped propel human soles to the lunar surface. Then again, it doesn’t change the impact of the all-too-earthly decisions made those fifty years ago. We chose, either way, to go to the moon. Not because it was easy, but because it was hard.

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                                          Life - After Camelot

Five decades later, the assassination of John F. Kennedy remains one of the few utterly signal events from the second half of the 20th century. Other moments — some thrilling (the moon landing, the fall of the Berlin Wall), others horrifying (the killings of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the Challenger explosion) — have secured their places in the history books and, even more indelibly, in the memories of those who witnessed them. But nothing in the latter part of “the American century” defined an era as profoundly as those rifle shots that split the warm Dallas air on November 22, 1963, and the sudden death of the 46-year-old president.

There was Camelot — a media construct, of course, but a rarity in that it actually resonated with so many people, everywhere — and then there was the somber, profoundly uncertain period after Camelot. For countless millions in America and around the globe who lived through the near-surreal transition, the days and weeks after JFK’s assassination felt like a chilling, restless pause: a moment so charged with unease that even reflection, or taking stock, seemed impossible.

Here, on the 45th anniversary of JFK’s March 1967 reinterment, when his remains were moved from his initial resting place to the permanent grave site and memorial at Arlington, offers a gallery of photographs (some of them never before published) from the deeply fraught funeral held mere days after Kennedy was killed. While both ceremonies — the state funeral in ’63, and the reinterment three-and-a-half years later — were marked by sorrow, the rawness of the emotion evident in 1963 is still striking, and rending, today.

“A woman knelt and gently kissed the flag,” LIFE magazine reported of the scene as JFK’s casket lay in state for two days after his assassination. “A little girl’s hand tenderly fumbled under the flag to reach closer. Thus, in a privacy open to all the world, John F. Kennedy’s wife and daughter touched at a barrier that no mortal ever can pass again.”

The next day, Kennedy’s body was taken “from the proudly impassive care of his honor guard” and was carried from the Capitol rotunda to Arlington.

“By a tradition that is as old as Genghis Khan,” LIFE noted, “a riderless horse followed” the flag-draped casket, “carrying empty boots reversed in the stirrups in token that the warrior would not mount again…. Through all this mournful splendor Jacqueline Kennedy marched enfolded in courage and a regal dignity. Then at midnight she came back again, in loneliness, to lay some flowers on her husband’s grave.”

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